Using genealogy books to answer “why” questions about immigrant ancestors

Today I am writing about genealogy books. One of the holy grails for family historians is answering crucial “why” questions about ancestors and the decisions they made:

  • Why did the Pinnix branch of the family move from North Carolina to California?
  • Why did my great-great-grandmother Hanora have a different last name on her son’s marriage certificate?
  • Why did Jonathan Gould list a completely different occupation in the 1880 census?
  • Why didn’t Valeria Rodriguez have her parents’ names listed on her death certificate?

The list of such questions is endless. That said, unless you’re fortunate enough to contact a living relative who knows the details, or good documentation (such as a family letter or a newspaper account) it can be very difficult to find answers.

That’s why I pay very close attention to research published in genealogy books or by local genealogy societies about families or places that have some connection with our own family history. Such genealogy books are huge time-savers, as they let genealogists answer questions that would otherwise take untold hours to research.

genealogy and history books

I am reading one such book now – For the Grass of a Cow: Marion Tiernan’s Irish ancestors from County Meath to Saint Lawrence County, New York, 1820–1999.

The author, Charles M. Carletta, was seeking to answer “why” questions about his own ancestors, and share the answers with his family and descendants.

However, his research also touches topics of interest to anyone with 19th-century Irish immigrants and ancestors who settled in this remote area of northern New York. He addresses crucial “why” questions that apply to our own research:

  • Why was this area so sparsely settled compared to other parts of New York State?
  • Why did immigrants from a particular area of Ireland – County Meath – choose to settle here before 1830, even though it was a frontier wilderness?
  • Why did so many immigrants from Ireland land in Canada instead of New York City before the Famine?

The author’s easy-to-understand answers apply directly to two branches of my family. The book also answered some of the basic “why” questions above, including the one about occupations in the 1880 census (the author notes census enumerators in 1880 were professionals for the first time, and as a result got more accurate answers). Carletta, a retired professor, also included extensive footnotes listing specific shipping and land records, as well as other books and historical resources to follow up with.

Where can you find genealogy books and articles that relate to your own family’s ancestors? Amazon has some titles, but we’ve found that specialty publishers and genealogy societies have books and journal articles that can’t be found elsewhere. I have found some great genealogy books at the NEHGS bookstore.

I have also had luck with the local history rooms at town libraries, as well as small-town historical societies. If you’re planning a genealogy road trip this summer, make plans to visit these repositories!